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American Jewish Writers and Israel

Friday, May 08, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Michael C. Kotzin wrote a two-part series on radical Islamism’s war against the Jews. You can find part one here and part two here. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

In the summer of 2011, after having been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988, I cut back my hours and changed my title from Executive Vice President to Senior Counselor to the President. Though throughout my tenure as a Jewish communal professional I had done a good deal of writing, those pieces were mostly on subjects closely related to my work. With the time that was freed up by the reduction in my Federation workload, I returned to involvement with literature of the sort that had defined my earlier career engagement when, with a Ph.D. in English from the University of Minnesota, I served on the faculty of Tel Aviv University for 11 years.

Happily accepting an invitation to become a Visiting Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the spring of 2013, I taught a senior seminar on a topic I devised called “Reflections on Zion: American Jewish Writers and Israel.” It was an approach that brought together both of my professional careers, and I much enjoyed my return to the classroom while finding the students delightful and engaging.

Along with the teaching, as I dug into the texts I had selected I found myself once more preparing publications on literary subjects. I wrote an article on I.F. Stone’s 1946 Underground to Palestine demonstrating the manner in which that icon of the left was sympathetic to the Zionist dream, and I was invited to prepare a piece on In Search, the 1950 autobiography by the novelist Meyer Levin. (That essay is scheduled to appear shortly in Hebrew translation in a special issue of an Israeli journal focusing on Diaspora, Exile, and Sovereignty.)

The curriculum for the course consisted of essays by Louis Brandeis and Marie Syrkin, along with Saul Bellow’s To Jerusalem and Back and a number of fictional works. When papers were invited for a session on “Zionism and the Novel” for the January 2015 meeting of the Modern Language Association that took place in Vancouver. I contemplated returning to Victorian Literature, my earlier area of specialization, to write about George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. But another paper had already been submitted on that topic and I decided to return to works from my class. The result was a presentation in which I talked about Zionist elements in Leon Uris’ Exodus (1958), Philip Roth’s The Counterlife (1986), and Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007).

Written in very different times and circumstances by authors who themselves were different in many ways, the books, with differing purposes as well, nevertheless can be seen to treat parallel Zionist themes. Especially notable in this regard are their disparate yet overlapping portrayals of the basic Zionist concept regarding the creation of a “new Jew.”

For Leon Uris, in his iconic bestseller, the epitome of that type is Ari Ben-Canaan, a rugged Sabra fighter. In a contemporary talk, Philip Roth expressed no patience with the Jew as tough guy. But later, in his own complex, dazzling novel, the figure of the new Jew again has a gun while now being split into Henry Zuckerman, a dentist from New Jersey who finds his Jewish identity by going to Israel, and Mordecai Lippman, a zealous settler leader who picks up the fighter image.

For Michael Chabon, writing still later, when America’s – and American Jewry’s – relationship with Israel had become even more complicated, the treatment of these and related themes takes a further turn. While the book is sometimes regarded as offering a post-Zionist perspective, I’m more inclined to see it as set in an alternative “pre-Zionist” world, where Yiddish is the lingua franca; where there is no Israel (the state having been destroyed almost immediately after its creation); and where Jews are shown living in a condition of permanent exile.

This book’s Jew with a gun is a detective out of a noir novel of the 1920s and ‘30s who is involved not with the collective redemption of the Jewish people in their homeland, as was the case with Exodus, nor with an individual’s new life in a communal setting in that land, as in The Counterlife, but with personal redemption in exile and the achievement of “union” only with his former wife.

The course I taught ended by focusing on two short stories by Nathan Englander and on Yosef Yerushalmi’s lone, posthumous work of fiction. Englander’s stories, we observed, show a familiarity with Israel as it has become for those American Jews for whom it remains a central part of their identity. In the story by Yerushalmi, a highly regarded New York-based scholar of an earlier generation, many of the themes of traditional Zionist thought are recapitulated in a striking fashion.

All in all, this course’s foray into the treatment of Israel by select American Jewish writers over the last century, while hardly comprehensive, showed me and my students that there is richness to be mined by exploring the topic and its evolution. While not one of the most widespread subjects treated by American Jewish authors, the subject of Zionism, Israel, and their meaning to American Jews has been significantly drawn upon by a range of such writers, a matter meriting further examination.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013.

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Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 2)

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 | Permalink

In part one of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?" Michael C. Kotzin wrote about radical Islam and the Jewish community. Today read part two of this two-part series and check back on Friday for Kotzin's final post for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen have been receiving considerable media notice since their rebellion against that country’s government caught fire. Yet their slogan – “Death to America, Death to Israel, Damnation to the Jews” – has attracted relatively little attention. That may be understandable since their main current activity is as a key player in Yemen’s Civil War, in which they have been linked to Iran even as the Saudis have been increasingly involved on the other side. Still, there is something revealing and typical in the fact that we have now been introduced to one more group of Islamist fighters for whom hatred of Israel and of the Jewish people is a central tenet, and in the fact that the Western media pays little attention to that reality.

On January 17, the New York Times ran a lengthy story on “Chérif and Saïd Kouachi’s Path to Paris Attack at Charlie Hebdo” which traced the jihadist radicalization of these two brothers and went on to talk about their connections with Amedy Coulibaly, who killed a French police officer the following day and then murdered four Jewish shoppers at the Hyper Cache Market the day after that.

The article tells its readers that a court transcript on another charge revealed that as early as September and October of 2004, “Chérif never stopped talking about the Jewish shops, of attacking them in the street in order to kill them.” Never in this lengthy article did the Times try to answer the question as to where such violent hatred of Jews came from. Was it part of the culture of the community in which Chérif grew up and lived? Was it taught by the jihadist mentor he had first learned from? Did he pick it up from the Internet or from satellite broadcasts emanating from the Muslim world? Why would Chérif and others be so receptive to such messages?

Clearly the attitudes are not unique to these brothers. Indeed, it was Coulibaly who, as he said in a recorded message released after he was killed, “went after the Jews” during the three-day terrorist spree. As has been reported in a piece in Tablet, last August Coulibaly and Hayat Boumedienne were recorded by a surveillance camera in front of a Jewish school, and after they had entered the school, he asked a security guard if “it was true that there were Jews inside of the building.”

On the day of the supermarket incident, the car he was driving had maps marked to show the designations of various Jewish schools in Paris, one of which was said to be near the spot where he killed a police officer on Thursday of that bloody week, leading to speculation, recently verified, that such a school was his intended target that day. It has also been speculated that he may also have been looking for a Jewish school on the following day, with the Hyper Cache, identifiably Jewish as a kosher market, then emerging as a target of opportunity. In any event, it clearly was living Jews, such as those he murdered and wounded in the market, not the building per se, that Coulibaly was after.

There have been a string of lethal Islamism-linked attacks on Jewish sites around the world in recent years. Those include the murderous shooting at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France, two years before the Paris attack; the murders at the Jewish Museum in Brussels last May; and more recently, the Copenhagen killings that included a Jewish civilian security guard outside of a synagogue where a Bat Mitzvah was being celebrated. These targets were not chosen by accident, nor was the motivation of the killers unrelated to the Islamist ideology of hate.

For all of that, little has been said to account for or even acknowledge the anti-Semitic loathing behind such activity, even as Islamist violence in general has garnered increased attention since the Paris incidents. Indeed, even regarding that case there were many in the Jewish community who doubted that the Hyper Cache killings would have evoked nearly as much of a response if they hadn’t been linked to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, which certainly got the lion’s share of the attention during the subsequent massive unity march in Paris. And while governments in several Western European countries have stepped up protection for Jewish institutions, neither their spokesmen nor community leaders have demonstrated full comprehension of this element of the problem.

Is there simply an understood expectation that the Jewish people, persecuted by so many through the ages, are an inevitable and natural target of today’s hatred and violence? Might there even be, in some quarters, an underlying assumption that the Jews have it coming?

While some commentators may automatically link anti-Jewish sentiment and behavior to feelings about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, and while that might be an aggravating circumstance in some cases, it is a far too easy and superficial way to account for all of what is happening.

Not that there is no connection with Israel. Surely the establishment of a Jewish, democratic, Western-style state in what they regard as the heart of “their” territory is an affront that many Arabs and Muslims have never gotten over, and the Jews of the world by extension are identified as the enemy. But the hatred I am talking about preceded the establishment of the State of Israel and transcends it. Indeed, the attribution of today’s anti-Semitism to the existence of Israel and whatever acts it may carry out might in many cases be seen as an excuse for that hatred rather than a reason for it.

In a 1950 autobiography called In Search the Chicago-born author Meyer Levin wrote about the Arab riots that took place in Palestine in 1929, when he was there living on a kibbutz. He noted that the Jewish victims of the Hebron massacre of that time were not recently-arrived nationalistic pioneers but religious scholars who had been there for generations, and he observed that the murderers had been provoked by incendiary sermons in their local mosques.

As relative disinterest in the implications of the singling out of the Jews by radical Islam continues even while the global thrust and threat of that danger grows, it becomes increasingly difficult not to think that there may be a willful blindness at work, something that perhaps itself reflects a residue of anti-Semitism. Where else can refusal to face the facts come from? Might it all go back to an urge to get free from lingering guilt about the Holocaust, which come to think of it was pretty much played down in its own time?

Could it be that to acknowledge what is happening and what it echoes would upend the belief that many hold about who currently wears the mantle of victimhood – at a time and in an ideological culture where the title of chief victim is coveted? In any event, the degree of silence that exists about the verbal and physical targeting of the Jews by today’s violent Islamist extremists says more about western society and its media than it does about the Jews. And that can’t be a healthy matter.

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013

On the front lines in a changing Jewish world: collected writings, 1988-2013

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Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares? (Part 1)

Monday, May 04, 2015 | Permalink

Michael C. Kotzin is a longtime Jewish communal professional and former professor of English Literature at Tel Aviv University. He has been an executive at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago since 1988 and is the author of the recently published On the Front Lines in a Changing Jewish World: Collected Writings 1988-2013. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sitting at my desk at the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago on October 29, 2010, I handled two urgent phone calls in short order. One was from the FBI, the other from the Department of Homeland Security. Both involved a warning following upon the interception of cargo planes with explosive-laden packages – one at the UK’s East Midlands Airport, the other at the Dubai Airport – both of them addressed to synagogues in Chicago.

Based on the intelligence information that had led to the interception of those packages, nothing more was believed to have been sent. But I was asked to be sure that security precautions were in place at our building and to notify Chicago-area synagogues to be on alert for suspicious packages, especially for ones identified as originating from Yemen or from an organization that had the word Yemen in it. It was on a Friday, with Shabbat approaching, and colleagues and I were quickly in touch with the synagogues and with other local Jewish organizations as well.

More information about that day’s threat began to emerge as the story went public. The packages contained desktop printer cartridges in which explosives had been placed and timers set so the bombs most likely would go off when the planes were at or over Chicago or another American city to the east, if the flights were running late.

Thinking back about that incident at the time of the incidents in Paris earlier this year, I was struck by a number of parallels. The packages were shipped by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemen-based terror group that later took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack. Anwar al-Awlaki, an American-born Islamic radical operating out of Yemen, who was described as being behind the earlier incident, was also regarded as an inspiration for the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, though he was killed by an American drone strike over three years before the latter incident occurred. The belief that Chicago was deliberately targeted in October 2010 was reinforced by a photo of the city’s skyline in the then-current issue of Inspire, a slick AQAP publication said to have been originally created by al-Awlaki which was first published in July 2010, and it too has been talked about in connection with the Charlie Hebdo attack.

As it happens, the addresses that were used on the 2010 packages were no longer connected with the synagogues that were named. In one case, the building continued to exist, though changing neighborhood demographics and an aging population had led the congregation itself to be dissolved before the attack. In the other case, a mostly gay and lesbian congregation had moved to another locale.

Speculation was that AQAP was working from an old listing of Chicago synagogues. But the determination of the type of target where they chose to send the packages was revealing, as were the names of the individuals to whom the packages were supposedly being directed. One package bore the name of Diego Deza, who in the fifteenth century succeeded Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition. The other package named as the intended recipient was Reynald Krak, a French knight of the twelfth-century Second Crusade, also known as Reynald of Châtillon, who was beheaded by Saladin. Both were famous enemies of the Muslims in past centuries.

And both no doubt were remembered by AQAP not only for their cruelty against Muslims but also for their association with movements that denied Muslims territory that they had previously ruled over and that they believed continued to belong to them. Each of these historic figures, it could be suggested, was meant as a type of the Americans and Jews regarded as today’s foremost enemies by radical Islam. The fact that Jews as well as Muslims were the primary victims of both the Crusaders and the Inquisition is an irony that was no doubt lost upon AQAP.

The identification of their self-narrative with particular historical events; the engagement in violence in religion-based conflicts over land and sovereignty; the use of terror to inflict physical, often lethal, harm and to create fear – these are basic beliefs and tactics of not only al-Qaeda and its branches but also other Islamist extremist groups and the individuals who are inspired by them, explaining why those who addressed the packages chose such otherwise puzzling names and destinations. Furthermore, the choice of what they thought were two synagogues as the designated targets of these packages fits a pattern we have continued to see stalking the globe today. The meaning of that particular kind of targeting – and of the rhetoric that accompanies it – however, has, I believe, received little attention beyond the Jewish community and beyond analysts and reporters – many of them Jewish – with a special interest in the topic. And that lacunae is a subject that I will examine in a continuation of this blog later this week.

Check back on Wednesday for Part II of "Radical Islamism’s War Against the Jews: Who Cares?"

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